Murder at the Mushaira by Raza Mir

Raza Mir’s latest book – Murder at the Mushaira is a unique juxtaposition of duty, morality, love and patriotism. By making the renowned poet Mirza Ghalib, the detective protagonist of the tale, Mir captures the attention of the readers from the very beginning.  With the unfolding of the story, several characters are introduced, each having more layers of complexities than the other. When a murder takes place at Nawab Iftikhar’s Mushaira, various theories depicting the reason behind it begins to appear. It is surprising how a man has several reasons to be killed and yet most lead to a dead end. But this whirlwind journey of investigation leads Ghalib from the palaces of the elite to the alleyways of Old Delhi; from the house of the entertainers to the walls of the Fortress. Mir also retains the flavour of Ghalib’s poetry throughout by beginning each chapter with a couplet of his works, which sets the tune for the chapter without giving away any twists and turns.

To understand Murder at the Mushaira, it is necessary to revisit the Delhi of the 1850’s when the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar is towards the end of his ruling days. Seeking this opportunity the British East Indian company is planning to take over Delhi, the crux of Hindusthan.  It is vigorously getting into pacts and treaties with other Indian Nawab’s and rulers and even stationing its armies across crucial barracks and checkpoints. Amidst this, grows the concern among a section of the society to preserve Hindusthan’s security and prevent it from falling in the hands of the notorious white men. This is further aggravated with one-off mutinies in various barracks, most famous of them all that of Mangal Pandey in Barrackpore. This being the broader scenario one cannot ignore the inter-personal relations between the Nawab’s themselves which are often shadowed by wealth, affairs, marriage etc. Moreover, several Nawabs had befriended the Englishmen in greed and become spies for the society. Amidst all this the male –female divide of the traditional society was prevalent along with class, caste and professionalism. Set in this backdrop Murder at the Mushaira explores all the above aspects through descriptions and actions to transport the reader to another era.

When Ghalib is summoned by the Kotwal to co-investigate the murder of Sukhan Khairabadi at the Mushaira he agrees to come on board. With the help of his friend, a scientist from Delhi University he quickly performs a routine scrutiny of the murder spot and the dead body- synonymous to modern day forensics and autopsy. This helps him chalk out a list of suspects from the men who attended the Mushaira and narrow down his investigation. When he chances upon unusual activities in the Zenana during one of his interrogation sessions, he starts taking a different approach to the case, one that leads to unimaginable secrets unfold in front of him, ultimately revealing the murderer.  Ghalib is joined by an array of characters with vibrant personalities who all seem to have a truth to hide- Nawab Iftikhar, his wife Roshan Ara Begum and daughter Zainab with her friends Hyderi Begum and Ishrat, the haveli help; his friend and scientist Ramakrishna ; his acquaintance Ratna Bai and the mysterious Sarfaraz Laskar.

It is interesting to note that how a Mushaira, an artistic reverie can be transformed into a den of political activities. In the disguise of a poetic gathering, political and state information exchange hands through an innovative courier system. In fact, not only the Mushaira, the entire knowledge of art has been used as a political weapon to fight for Hindusthan. Humanities and Art has been seen as a weaker subject of the society. But only a few understand its real strength and symbolism and that has been acutely harnessed by the author to weave a complex web of actions and reactions throughout the novel. The story also compels the readers to think about the power bestowed within the Arts having the capability to make or mar civilizations, which has been underestimated by the community for decades.  The novel speaks volumes about feminism in a conservative patriarchal and political society as some of the major characters are women. It is their actions that ultimately remove the veil from the mystery.

Murder at the Mushaira is not only a gripping tale of a complex murder but is also laden with emotions. It is a treat to visualise all the characters, their actions and their part in the novel. To see Ghalib in action as a sleuth is the real twist in the tale; of course he does have a side –kick as well, like all detectives. With a high dose of patriotism, nationalism, thrill, emotion, anguish, jealousy, Murder at the Mushaira is a liberating story of an era gone by with values that one can still hold on to today.

No. of Pages: 338

Publications: Aleph

Available on: Flipkart / Amazon

Rating: 3.75/ 5

Life Unknown: A Passage through India by Kartikeya Ladha

Do you love to travel and if so, why? Is it for experiencing the warm sun brushing against your skin while sitting in the hills and valleys? Would you prefer to see the orange hues of the sunset beside a beach? Does lazying under the starry skies and speaking your heart out to friends or fellow travelers catch your fancy? Or is delving deeper into a life unknown to search and discover the meaning and potential of your life, the true reason for your travels? Kartikeya Ladha’s recent book Life Unknown points out to discovering life’s little pleasures, far beyond the materialistic ones achieved through a mechanized lifestyle. While Ladha’s journey in the book begins in the scenic deserted beauty of Leh and Ladakh, his journey in life began way earlier when he quit his 9-5 job in the United States and went on an adventure to Peru.  From the lap of nature in Leh to the holy city of Rishikesh to walking along the Western Coast, Ladha’s life has been anything but ordinary.

What is remarkable about the book is that society- its positives and fallacies are explored through the eyes of a discovering traveler. The lack of exaggeration and to-the-point description of places, journeys, emotions, and most importantly society’s interference in an individual’s personal life, makes this book relatable in every aspect.

 Ladha points out a few crucial loopholes in the society that as a community one must immediately make amends to. Primary of which is the increased mechanized lifestyle that one leads. Ever since a child is born they are earmarked into certain ‘acceptable professions’ and pressurized to achieve the utmost specialization in it. The community never stops comparing one’s child with the clichéd ‘Sharma Ji ka beta’ and thereby pushes the child away from oneself as well as away from his/her self. It is easier to say Live and Let live but difficult to follow the same. This is followed by nosy aunties and neighbors who form an important part of any community. These gossip mongers of the society are the earliest ‘influencers’ in the world who have the power of words to make or break anything. Ladha’s strong will makes him break away from the clutches of a stereotypical society and lose himself in the country, discovering life through experiences.

Throughout Kartikeya’s travels, he brings out pertinent observations. While he makes friends with another traveler Shira, he talks about the differences faced by men and women when traveling. With women, safety is a prime issue. During his stay in South India, he feels someone trying to break into his room and questions the issue of security more sternly. Health forms a major factor while traveling and he carefully recounts his failing health on various occasions. This makes one understand that physique is an important aspect of traveling and Ladha’s truth in its description makes the readers live his story through his words.

When he is traveling through the West Coast of India, he comes across pristine clear beaches to extremely polluted ones. This makes one wonder about the actions of the people where they pollute and abuse nature to its fullest. On his halts in one of the Ashrams in the South, he experiences a clear case of racism where International and National Guests have different rules of accommodation.

Another case in point put forward by Ladha which has a profound impact on the readers is the definition of development. All countries big or small define development through their financial strength but what about the development of the people of the country? Should holistic development not feature in this definition? The number of suicidal deaths is on a rise. Mental health is slowly entering into mainstream illness and the focus on it is growing, to provide a healthy mind and the body to all.

Life Unknown gives a beautiful description of travels where one lets go of all inhibitions and imbibes lessons and experiences from Nature to lead a better life. Apart from the scenic beauty, Nature is the best teacher of unparalleled wisdom which no classrooms can impart to the children. It lets a wanderer discover life at ease. It shows that no job is big or small and that the innate survival instincts would make a man go far enough to do anything for survival. Travel is a reflection of ourselves and how small an individual is vis-a-vis Nature. It destroys the egoist demon within each one of us and instills the values of patience, perseverance, and service to enhance the values of our lives.  It shows us how to connect by being disconnected from the gadgets that rule our lives nowadays.

How many times have you grown tired of your scheduled life and wanted to take a break – in the seaside or the mountains?  Next time such a thought arises, do action your plans. It might do you good. Traveling the world broadens the mind to a potpourri of culture, art, and people, something that one should not miss at all! Highly recommended, Life Unknown is that book which you can carry on your travels across the country or the world; read while sitting in your cozy reading space, or enjoy quietly in a café while also absorbing the surroundings and making new friends.

No. of Pages: 397

Publication: Wild Ambro

Available on: Amazon

Rating: 4/5

*I would like to Thank fellow book reviewer Siddhi Palande (aka Book Gobbler) for allowing me to review this book.

Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu by Jenny Bhatt

The very name Dhumketu transports me back to my school. Amidst long summer days when the sun was boiling over our heads, I used to sit near the window (gazing at the world outside) trying to create a visual imagery of the lines being read by my teacher. These lines from the mind of Dhumketu stuck with me then and have come back to me now- only in a different language. Ratno Dholi– a translation of some of the finest works of Dhumketu by Jenny Bhatt opens the door to this wonderful regional literature, which meanders its way to the hearts of thousands of people worldwide.

Ratno Dholi is an anthology of twenty-six stories which give the readers a glimpse of the society in which Dhumketu resided and wrote for. Each of the stories binds the readers’ interest through emotion, wit, dreams, and desires. Interestingly these urban and rural sentiments and actions are no different from what it is today. Dhumketu’s far-sightedness while writing the stories re-establish the fact that even though over the years, the mode of expression or reaction to situations may have changed, the primitive desires and feelings of mankind remain the same.

While all the stories resonated with me, discussing five of my absolute favourites from the book.

  • The Post Office: The very first story from the book happens to be the one straight out of my Hindi book from school. But with years elapsed between then and now the ideation behind the story becomes clearer. It is said ‘when a man puts aside his own perceptions and looks through another’s viewpoint, then half the world will be at rest.’ When an old man visits the post office everyday awaiting a letter from his daughter, he becomes the butt of all jokes. But when those joking about him experience a similar situation, would things change for the better? The Post Office makes us realise the meaning of parental love. It also throws light on how children treat their parents when they get busy in their own lives. It compels the readers to contemplate about parent-children relationship and it’s ageing with time.
  • On the Banks of the Sarayu: Do you remember listening to stories told by your parents and grandparents? But what happens when a story is started off by the parents and never goes beyond its first line- On the Banks of the Sarayu? Days, weeks and months pass by but the story is stuck at its first line! Dhumketu yet again explores the idea of parenting in modern society. Do parents really have the time to fulfil their children’s wishes? Are parents neglecting their children and giving precedence to their work over relationships? And what about the children, do they feel alienated from their family members?  It is thought provoking that an incomplete story gives rise to various complete perception of the situation.
  • Kailas: The story of a struggle which started off years ago and continues in full force today – the cause of the farmers;  Kailas is all about trying to attain peace of mind amidst chaos. Through Kailas’ back story one gets a vision of how farmers are treated and disrespected and how this mental and physical agony escalates in unthinkable ways. While we talk of living in a society which is diverse, it is questionable how much of this ‘diversity’ are we accepting at heart.
  • My Homes: A very interesting take on the stories of the various homes that the narrator has lived in. We tend to live in a few homes through our lifetimes which might include hostels or rentals and how the stay affects us in return is exciting to note. The story progresses through memories of the inanimate object and its residents and is a clear form of compelling narrative.
  • Prisoner of Andaman: When a man returns home after serving twenty years at the Kala Pani how does his relatives and well-wishers acknowledge him? Is he accepted in his village or does he make the Andamans his forever home? Prisoner of Andaman makes the readers think about the way one treats those who have served sentences. Does society not give them a chance to become a part of it once they commit a crime and serve their due for it? Does negligence shatter the individual o much that they tend to move onto the wrong path yet again? The psyche of a prisoner is very well described in the story along with those around him.

What is interesting to note is the patriarchal society in which Dhumketu lived in. Out of the twenty six stories, majority revolve around men and their lives. Those that do talk about women either portray them as mere instruments of building political relations or as burdens in the society. His take on the caste system and untouchables are also thought-provoking viewpoints of his time. Jenny Bhatt has done a phenomenal translation of his writings keeping the nascent emotions alive and yet rewriting the stories in a language that reaches the global readers. Reading Ratno Dholi also makes us realise the treasure trove of literature that resides in regional language and how their translation is the need of the hour. Definitely a must read!

No. of Pages: 315

Publisher: Harper Collins

Available on: Amazon

Rating: 4/5

*Disclaimer: I would like to Thank Harper Collins for the review copy

The Binding by Bridget Collins

My foray into young adult fiction has been with The Binding by Bridget Collins, one of the most acclaimed books of 2019, which has appeared on several bestseller lists and won the hearts of many worldwide with its unique themes. Emmett, a young lad is sent to serve as Seredith, a book binder’s apprentice. Ironically, his parents keep him away from books for his entire life but suddenly compel him to embrace this forbidden world without any proper justification. He starts living with Seredith in an old, lonely and quiet house; picking up basic skills and slowly growing fond of her. All goes well till he chances upon Seredith’s client Lucian Darnay, the reality of the work of binding, and a book named after him.

The storyline shifts to the past with a flashback sequence of Emmett living with his family – parents and sister, Alta – and managing their farm. When Alta is saved from a freak accident by the nephew of a nearby farm lord, she befriends him and they become inseparable friends. Alta starts developing feelings for her saviour. Things progress smoothly until a fateful day when relationships turn upside down. The book intersperses the past and the present smoothly to give the readers the entire scenario. The answers to questions that haunt the minds of the readers – Who is Lucian Darnay? What is his relationship with Emmett? Why is Emmett sent into the world of books that his parents despised much? Why are books objects of hatred? – starts unravelling themselves.

The Binding is an unforgettably magical story about relationships, friendship, love and the fight to reunite with ones love against all odds. It shows how the world works on pretence and sometimes how hypocritical it becomes to endure this falsehood. It explores the abusive nature of individuals – physical or mental- towards family or the weak. It throws light on the psyche of the one who is defeated and gives up on the world. It talks about the innate strength that one gets to fight for those one dearly loves. With multiple themes that one can relate to and that fits so perfectly within the storyline, Collins brings closer the world of pages and reality.

With a parallel focus on the existence and constituents of books, the novel expresses to the readers the various aspects of books- the reasons for creating a book, the rationale behind it, the morality of its existence, and the diversification of the profession through trading of books.The art of ‘binding’ seems simple and yet is a task full of responsibilities. Elements of the purpose and experience of reading a book have been incorporated in the process of ‘binding’ books and its consequences in the lives of the people. It creates a parallel universe, introduces new characters, generates curiosity and controls or manipulates the mind with limited knowledge. Seen from the point-of-view of the readers the process of ‘binding’ creates various interpretations to a person’s life, giving them the liberty to perceive the situations as per their interests. The Binding also highlights the community perceptions towards binders and books in general. While some find both necessary and respect them; many spread rumours and legends of binders being witches or wizards and books as evil spirits.

The Binding refers to the binding of a book, keeping which in focus; Collins weaves a spellbinding charm by merging fantasy and reality. One reads books on a day to day basis, but the most significant question being raised here is -What is actually being read? Thoughts? Memories? Desires? Secrets? This novel makes the readers contemplate on what makes up a book and why does it become so popular. From making books seem to be a very personal object to introducing trade books and immoral selling for making quick profit, The Binding explores the idea of book binding and the business of books in details. The processes and ideologies explained here are in simple terms, but the actualities of these nomenclatures are far deeper than what meets the eye and have severe impacts on the book industry.

Filled with innovative themes and realistic character plots, The Binding is a must –read book for all ages. It subtly and beautifully touches a chord with the readers and brings to the forefront, books in a new light.

No. of pages: 438

Publisher:  Borough Press , Harper Collins

Available:  Flipkart / Amazon / Storytel

Rating: 4/5

Nothing to Lose by Manbeena Sandhu – Stories of Black, White and Orange from Bhagwan Land

Manbeena Sandhu’s first non-fiction venture- Nothing to Lose, the authorized biography of Bhagwan Rajneesh’s right hand Ma Anand Sheela unlocks the secrets behind the kingdom of Rajneeshpuram through the eyes of Sheela.  The story begins in the scenic beauty of the German Black Forest where Sheela is arrested post her resignation as Bhagwan’s secretary. Then on, it is a retrospect of her life unfurling before the readers. It is interesting to note how remarkably intertwined it is with that of Bhagwan’s, who becomes her beloved and forever master.

A teenage Sheela is smitten by the calm demeanour of Bhagwan Rajneesh in 1965. His discourses start attracting her attention. Post attaining her degree and marriage, she returns to her one true calling- Bhagwan. This time she is accompanied by her husband and is ready to leave her life and embrace the orange hues of his beloved’s world. With time, she settles down in his ashram in Poona and even traverses International boundaries to gift her Master the city of Rajneeshpuram in Oregon, USA. But as they say that relationships hang from a fine thread; and once that thread is pulled hard, it is inevitable that the relationship will break. With time, their diverse mindset causes a strain in their relationship resulting ultimately in Sheela’s resignation from her post and starting afresh. In her new world, she faces several allegations which she graciously handles till she finds the freedom and peace in spirit that she has been pursuing all along.

Sheela’s life trajectory is full of ups and downs but she comes out of all upheavals, much like a rebellious warrior who keeps the reigns of her life in her hands. It is pertinent to acknowledge her supportive parents and family who are progressively ahead of their times. That is why a daughter coming from a well-to-do family in the 1970’s Surat, who marries an American, could walk on the path of spirituality, unobstructed.

Bhagwan’s Ashram in Poona starts off like a Gurukul where thousands of neo-sannyasins gather to hear his discourse. But over time ‘Sex-Drugs- Rock and Roll’ set in as the motto, given his principles of free sexual spirituality. Though considered to be the ‘Messiah of the New Morality’, his ideals start enraging the elite and the powerful.  This leads the readers to question the idea of progressiveness and its acceptance. Further when spirituality and faith starts turning into commercialism it explores the pitfalls of such practices. By the time Rajneeshpuram is set up , Bhagwan is a changed man who basks in the glory of his Rolls Royce’s and Diamond Watches transferring his vigilant guardian duties to Sheela. It is not long before his growing demands takes a toll on the management, finance, political and social sustenance and ultimately on Sheela who breaks free of the chains of bondage.

Nothing to Lose is the story of Sheela and her relation with her beloved Bhagwan. It depicts her many personalities – as a symbol of strength, a passionate lover, a dutiful disciple, a rebel, a self- respecting individual and much more. The biggest turning point in her life is the betrayal she faces when Bhagwan becomes a changed man. He is no longer the man who shows ways to the lost, instead, he becomes the man who loves to traverse on diamond paths. Sheela maintains an elegance and dignity in her behaviour by trying to prove her point, but never resorting to mudslinging in the name of her Bhagwan. The respect and position that she gives to her Bhagwan is for lifelong even though her beloved loses his path in the course of their relation.

Sheela also turns out to be an extremely innovative and creative resource throughout her contribution to the Ashram and Rajneeshpuram. Her hands-on understanding of the situation, taking back –up measures, excellent marketing skills and maintaining a well-researched legal and media teams made her reach out for the moon in terms of expansion and empire-building. However sometimes it is clearly visible that many of her actions are not her own. They are the words of the Bhagwan which she resonates as a helpless puppet. This can be perceived in two different lights. First, the true and pure faith that Sheela has for her Bhagwan made her comply with him and progress on a path of wrong –doings; Second, Sheela’s thirst to continuously prove herself and win her Bhagwan’s love makes her trudge on a path of unending misery. Sheela’s actions are open to individual perception. But even then, her consciousness and rationale behind it all makes her come clean as a victim rather than a Mastermind.   

Nothing to Lose is an apt title to  Ma Anand Sheela’s biography because the one who has surrendered it all has nothing to lose in life. She first surrendered herself to Bhagwan and then her spirit, skills, words and actions towards taking care of the disciples at Rajneeshpuram. But when she loses the trust with which she had surrendered her life, it makes her strong enough to hold her fort and battle it out with the world to start the second innings of her life. Today, Ma Anand Sheela is an icon of strength and a symbol of patience and perseverance. Her life has been one of service to the community and she continues to do so by serving others. Sheela’s life is full of trials and tribulations and it finally seems she has arrived at a stage of spiritual peace. Her journey is full of lessons – the white, the black and the orange – that is part of life . One can only hope to read the biography and pick up from these lessons, improvise on them and give back to the society through service.

Sandhu has done a commendable job of researching and presenting an era gone by through her narrative skills and detailed descriptions. Nothing to Lose highlights Bhagwan Rajneesh’s views which later became immortalised under the Osho Movement. It did take the world by storm in the 1970s-80s ; but in 2020 one cannot really act as the moral police here and judge / comment on his teachings. Time and mindset have indeed come a long way since the movement was at its height and today it might be visualised in a completely new light.

No. of Pages: 319

Publisher: Harper Collins

Available on: Amazon / Flipkart

Rating: 4/5

*I would like to Thank WritersMelon and Harper Collins for providing me with a review copy of the book.

Daughters of Char Chinar by Almas Hussain

‘Slaughtering a woman in Char Chinar is commonplace occurrence but killing a man is something else. Masculine lives matter.’ The very foundation of Daughters of Char Chinar is steeped in the legacy of patriarchy and how the women of the community rise against it to triumph over wrong, once and for all.  Hussain’s latest novel follows the trials and tribulations of the twins – Meher and Nafisa- who stand up against the forced patriarchy of Char Chinar.

Motherless and abandoned at birth, Meher and Nafisa are brought up by a cook at their father’s mansion. On coming of age, they are relocated to their maternal house, as it becomes no longer safe for two beautiful young girls to remain in the vicinity of lecherous men. The two discover friendship, love, loss, fear and hidden secrets of the family through their unforgettable journey in their maternal house.  

Daughters of Char Chinar directs the reader’s attention to certain pertinent observations about the very existence of women in society. Their treatment as mere objects of pleasure and barter by men, withhold their deserved Rights from them.  Any resistance towards the same leads to death or abandonment- not to mention ruining their honour. It is almost as if their existence is shrouded by the veil of subordination, leaving no space for them to have a voice and opinions of their own. The twin’s mother, Shabnam, fell prey to the clutches of the same mentality which resulted in her death. But her dreams and aspirations of seeing a free community for women lived on through her daughters.

The reference to the temporary Jirga courts highlighting one of the very many social evils in tribal communities, portray that even though the world has supposedly moved on in freedom and liberty, many regions are still as backward as they were centuries ago. The tradition of offering an unmarried daughter or the closest female relative as compensation to sins committed by men; so that the payment can be made by ravaging her, represents the sheer pettiness existing in the minds of men.

The very actuality of the Jirga courts, however temporary in form, brings the readers to wonder about the law and order system which permits the execution of such systems. This also leads one to question their existential safety where the law enforcers are consumed by greed and lust and submit their honour and position to be moulded by an oligarchic community. It makes one wonder whom to approach for justice or should the word even exist in the community?

With repeated instances of women being harassed and presented to the Jirga courts for ages without a silver lining; fear stations itself permanently in the hearts of the people, especially women. This fear triggers Meher and Nafisa’s grandmother, to weave a web of lies to safeguard the children, from the disastrous fate young girls are usually subjected to. Her plan of protecting the twins, though innovative, also makes the readers’ question the extent to which common people are willing to go to defend their children from fellow human –beings.

The above discussion sums up in a nutshell what Meher and Nafisa are up against to survive within the boundaries of Char Chinar as independent girls, without having to worry about their cruel destinies. What both the girls do realise is that a problem can only be combatted when one is educated about the same and have enough resources to fight against it. It brings us to the significance of education especially among women to stand up against the wrong.  It is needful to mention that Hussain also highlights the actions of the ‘Sons’ of Char Chinar- who help in bringing revolutionary change in the community.  This only proves that not all men are alike and restores faith in humanity.

Daughters of Char Chinar, though a fiction, tells the brutal truth of the 21st century society. No matter how much we harp on a progressive society, certain stances are definitely regressive and need to be uprooted the soonest. Meher and Nafisa are backed up by many other daughters of Char Chinar who have suffered similar fates. Armed with their dreams and aspirations, their support- physically or in spirit, and far sightedness; coupled with the instrument of education and strong-willed acumen – the land of Char Chinar could see better days for their children. At the end of it all, the greatest message that the novel gives is that love has powers that patriarchal backwardness, male egoism and domination cannot even fathom. The power of this four-letter word is enough to turn the tables and deliver justice denied to women for decades.

Hussain beautifully pens down the book giving space and time for the growth of each character. Their emotions and actions are justified and realistic. With twists and turns, the storyline is gripping and the readers are left with the want to find out more after reading each page. There are various sub-plots in the story but each of them merges effortlessly with the main storyline avoiding any narrative confusion. What is also interesting about the book is its call-to-action. It makes the readers aware of the atrocities still existing in the society and if we, as individuals can do our part in resisting it, we have the capability of making the world a better place. The first step has been taken by Hussain where she pens down this book to open our eyes and ears to the real world. The next step needs to be taken by us as conscious citizens of the community. Daughters of Char Chinar is also slated to be a major motion picture and it is thoroughly awaited.

Definitely a highly recommended book and one of my best reads for 2020!

No. of Pages: 338

Publisher: Pirates Books

Available at: Amazon

*Disclaimer: I would like to thank Falguni Jain and Pirates Books for giving me the opportunity to review the book.

Hassan’s State of Affairs by Mirza Athar Baig

Originally written in Urdu by Mirza Athar Baig and titled Hassan Ki Surat-e-Haal , Hassan’s State of Affairs has been translated by Haider Shahbaz. At the onset, the writer and translator should both be commended for delving into one of the most non-linear and non-chronologic novels of modern times with diverse, non-stereotypic patterns of storytelling. The story begins with a Senior Accountant Hassan, who loves his ride to his workplace and engages in a series of ‘displaced sightseeing’. On one such journey he chances upon a junkyard and the story begins then on. The junkyard is the property of an ambitious collector whose sole purpose in life is to make it to the Guinness Book of World Records. One day the collector is spotted by a writer of a surrealist film- This Film That Cannot be Made. Here on the narrative takes various twists and turns and delves deep into the lives of Hassan and the film-crew who is making the film based on the junkyard and the Guinness-obsessed collector. It is interesting to note how the story takes a pace of its own and how by luck Hassan and the film-crew meet each other.

Hassan’s State of Affairs, brings into the forefront various philosophies and theories of life, the way one visualises the world and films. The human mind is truly the most awe-inspiring object on the world. The way it functions is sometimes beyond the understanding of humans themselves. Four distinct ways in which the mind functions have been cleverly incorporated as narrating patterns to take the story forward.

Hassan’s perpetual habit of ‘displaced sightseeing’ coupled with scenario-formulating makes for a very unique narrative. Often when we pass random objects on our way, we tend to ignore it. This ‘displaced sightseeing’-scenario formulating style has given birth to various possibilities and probabilities of situations, and how one can react to them. This formulation of probabilities leads to fluctuating thoughts, to combat which, the kinetic consciousness of mankind constantly needs to ‘scribble’ down each possibility. This has been cleverly named as ‘non-interventionist intervention’, a trait clearly visible in the surrealist film-writer.

If so far these concepts seem new, the writer has made sure of giving a lesson to the readers by ‘walking with Hassan’ and confusing vital realities. Reality, Alternate Reality, Sub-Altern Reality- Unrealism – are all kneaded together to create this crisp tale. The element of surrealism which is an undistinguishable veil to the realm of reality and unreality has been flawlessly captured thought the writings of Baig and translations of Shahbaz. Surrealism is a philosophy most attractive to film-makers and students of film. I remember learning it years ago in film classes, and the beauty with which a film-making technique has been blended into a novel is praiseworthy. Surrealism also often confuses the mind and makes one careful while speaking out their thoughts, especially among peers. Amplifying this message, the inside-outside format of dialogues has been cleverly devised where readers get to simultaneously read about what a character thinks vis-a-vis what the character says aloud.

Apart from the above methods which play with the mind, a fifth seemingly unrelated process of storytelling that has been used is object biography. When we see an object or make use of it, we never necessarily give a moment to think about the inception of the object. But is it necessary that we do ponder about it?  All five narrating styles are equally provocative to contemplate various philosophies. The use of such strong storytelling patterns are quite new and refreshing to read.

Hassan’s State of Affairs continues in two parallel plots and each plot poses some thoughtful questions, the first of which being the idea of making a surrealist film and the significance of the genre in contemporary times. Surrealism once brought about a revolution in film-making. But do the contemporary audience desire more of surrealism or straight forward movies today? Are the intellectual minds hungry for surrealism applauded, or has intellect been swallowed by the capitalist wave of commercialised cinema?  This process of film-making also throws light on the capitalist segment of the production. Do all businessmen enter the world of films for personal joy and money squandering? Do they understand the emotions and enthusiasm running at the backend or are only concerned with the fulfilment of their needs?

While reading Hassan’s State of Affairs, it will definitely strike the readers how very few female characters take centre stage and the light in which they have been introduced- a cigarette-smoking bold actor-screenplay writer to a stuntwoman cum man-expert to theatre actors who are often seen upon as ‘sluts’ by the world. This shows the immediate need of inducing gender equality and affirming a secure base to the women of the community. Women can be different from what is expected of them by the community in the unwritten book of conduct and with progressive time, it should be accepted and respected. The women in Hassan’s State of Affairs can be perceived as bold and strong; or of loose morals by the orthodox conservative schools. It is completely up to the readers to perceive them.

Coming back to Hassan, his visual perception of ‘displaced sightseeing’ is the reflection of an unconscious perception of every individual. But how often do we pause moments from our life to ponder about the situations happening in front of us? More often than not, never, if they do not concern us at all. But Baig makes the readers think about whether these situations are truly situations that do not concern the viewer? Does viewing the situation not make them a (silent) character/ participant in the situation itself?

Post posing several questions, the novel leaves the reader to use their power of displaced sightseeing, object biography, non-interventionist intervention and inside-outside dialogues to come up with suitable answers for themselves. It is a pure play of perceptions and no particular answer can be judged correct or incorrect. Such is the beauty of Hassan’s State of Affairs.

It will be futile to have the discussion about the content but not acknowledge how beautifully it has been transformed into the book cover by designer Rashmi Gupta. The motifs of the mind, eye and camera – all three instruments of perception have been simplistically yet effectively placed within one another to give a long-lasting impression of the symbolism within the novel through its book cover.

Hassan’s State of Affairs is a mesmerizing story told from several viewpoints. It is the story of various colourful characters and their obsessions, ambitions, relationships, influences, uncertainties and desires which often conflict with one another. But what makes the overall novel special is its unique narrative styles and how seemingly insignificant occurrences come back to us in the most unimaginable ways. As the narrator of the novel says that, there is high probability that what is uncommon might not occur but the possibility of its occurrence cannot be ruled out either.

No. of Pages: 604

Publisher: Harper Collins

Author: Mirza Athar Baig

Translator: Haider Shahbaz

Available on: Amazon

Rating: 4/5

5 Reasons to read Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

Written by Deepa Anappara, this sensational debut has already caught the eyes of the audience and literary prize organisations. Having been shortlisted for the JCB Prize 2020 and on the Longlist for the Atta Galatta Prize, Bangalore Literature Festival, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is definitely going places with its simple yet powerful narrative. Going by the several rave reviews the book has received I decided to read it myself (while I was staying at home during Pujo) and really liked the story. Here is why I think Djinn Patrol… is definitely worth a read.

Straight out of a Crime Series: Just like the protagonist Jai intently gazes and notices the working of the Police officers and detectives on Crime shows; the audience is mesmerized at the usage of the same techniques (to whatever possible extent) by three young children (by young I mean around 8 – 10 years) . Visualising the scenes while reading a book is a habit most readers have automatically imbibed by now and while reading this book, I am sure you would feel like you are watching another episode of a Crime Series. Being a fan of such series myself, this way of structuring the narrative struck a chord with me on the first go.

Gripping narrative: Generally books are narrated by protagonists who are post teens or older; but here it is narrated by children. Several children, their family conditions and relationships, drive forward the storyline. What is intriguing is the validity of the situations. Children, we are aware are immature, hasty, emotional, indecisive and definitely need guidance in their formative years. But the three young protagonist- Jai, Pari and Faiz seem to be taking the role of leaders and guiding the search patrol for finding their missing friends. However with child-like traits in them, sometime they too get distracted towards objects and activities of their choice which makes their focus waver. This only pushes the audience towards a much-needed reality taking into consideration that distraction is part of Nature and such occurrences happen oh-so-often than is actually portrayed.

A tale of the hypocritical society: Anappara talks of the ground realities and nuances existing in our liberal, democratic, and progressive society. While at one end we usually see children with their parents, friends, family enjoying in the eye-glistening lights of modern urbanscape; the same urbanscape in its darker side devours children, men, women and even voiceless animals mercilessly. This brutally honest depiction compels the readers to rethink about the society they live in, the people with their double faces that one interacts with daily, and if there is any way in which the world can be made a better place through individual contribution. When the saviours of the people turn into demons through false power and arrogance of money, it is up to the common people to come together and fight for what is rightfully theirs.

Social Evils at its peak: Talk about rape, kidnapping, murder, trafficking, prostitution, beggary (which has now become one of the biggest social racket), hooliganism, bribery, communalism, gender disparity -each one of them has been touched upon in Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line. It is indeed commendable that while each of the problems has their own space and page limits, they smoothly transition and complement the story taking it forward. Nowhere will the reader Sigh upon the inclusion of so many individual social evils. What is interesting is that most of the wrong-doings are discovered by the children throughout the course of their investigation. The ability to discover the wrongs in the society and contemplate about them forming one’s own opinion gives Anappara leverage as a writer where the readers also read about its effect on the minds of the children and their response to it. 

Depiction of Child Psychology: One of the major themes for the year 2020 is mental health. Keeping in mind the claustrophobic nature and spatial limitations due to COVID-19, discussing about mental health is an absolute must and no shame attached! A substantial part of mental health constitutes child psychology as they are the most vulnerable. From the very beginning Jai, Pari and Faiz have an up and running conscience. They analyse everything as per the crime scene that they watch but more in order to find their friend than becoming a hero. Faiz, having lost his father decides to help his brother by working shifts to earn for the household. Even though this is voluntarily done, this depicts the positive side of the roots of responsibility and discipline instilled in him; but on the flip side also amounts to the much criticised child labour. What is notable about Faiz’s character in particular is that though very young, he understands the idea of communalism very clearly and tries to adjust himself to avoid confrontations. This only portrays how the evil in the society has not spared children as well.

It is hard to believe that Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is a debut novel because of the simplicity of the concepts and finesse of the storyline. The juxtaposition of the past and the present told and retold from the point of view of children makes the novel stand out and connect with the readers. Hope to read more from the author in future.

No. of Pages: 320

Publisher: Penguin

Available: Amazon / Flipkart / Snapdeal / Audible

7 Life Lessons from Yayaati’s Experiments with the Truth

Yayaati by Mahesh Vaze takes you on a journey of the high-on-demand corporate to entrepreneur boom. It traces the life of the protagonist, Yayaati and his endless search for wanting to achieve something better in life and thereafter a peaceful mind. The novel is a reflection of the actualities of being a corporate employee and an entrepreneur. Its realistic approach makes it quite relatable to anyone who works or has worked in similar sectors. The best part of reading Yayaati for me was its takeaway lessons which I have highlighted below.

Don’t Judge a Person by their marks: The world has become such that digits, percentages and percentiles on the performance report of a student matters more than their abilities and grasp over their field of interest and talents. Yayaati, in his days at the IIM appears to be one of the mediocre students who takes interest in various subjects and also prepares himself by being aware of  ‘out-of-syllabus’ subjects. This is seen as a tomfoolery within the precincts of the institution but in the long run gives him the power of knowledge and understanding of a wide knowledge base. His ability to prove himself and excel in his work as an analyst also earns him All India Rankings which would probably have been unthinkable by his peers in the institution. Thus it is important to contemplate if digits on the report card really matter in professional life?

Personal Transformation Becomes Mandatory: An importantaspect of being a corporate employeeis to pay attention to one’s personal presentation. Yes, it does matter if you are wearing Armani suits or a relatively cheaper tie picked up from the bazaars of Mumbai, Delhi or Kolkata. Personal branding is as important as leveraging the brand of the company you work for. One might have all the knowledge in the world, but as long as they are not ‘looking rich and important and worth-your-time’ companies usually tend not to grant them any appointment or take them seriously. Yayaati too transformed himself from the simple small town boy to the gourmet loving ‘Us Mumbaikars’ in no time to live up to the expectations of his clients and his personal reputation of being one of the Top 3 analysts.

Stay Away from the 9 Sins of Corporatism: It is said that ‘ with power comes great responsibility’ but it is also true that power is accompanied by the 9 sins of the corporate world- insecurity, inferiority complex, becoming an opportunist, jealousy, extreme work pressure, stress, ego, fear of failure and thirst to become an overachiever.All these nine inevitable notions collectively symbolised as office politics, exert immense negativity in the minds of the people, degrading the work atmosphere. It is not unheard of that these are the significant reasons as to why several deserving individuals are removed from their positions or fighting off them often leads to developing psychological challenges which results in frequenting a counsellor.  

Sometimes you need a BREAK: Yayaati has always been a think- ahead kind of a person who knows when to let go of the situation and when to hold fort. Many times, he goes on long holidays to clear his mind off the volatility of his job market. This is true for all employees working in a corporate. Freshening up of the mind is an absolute necessity else one suffers from breakdown or mental block. It also accounts for inspiration that might help in recovering work and giving it a new direction.

Embark on an Entrepreneurial Journey: As everyone has a passion to do something, midway their jobs, they also develop a passion to being their own boss- My Life My Rules. After having three successful stints in the stock market Yayaati decides to become the master of his own passion. He along with his wife, Vasu, sets up a luxury eco-lodge catering to the minds and pockets of the upper middle class, elites, tourists, and business class. Venturing in to the hospitality empire from scratch was definitely full of hurdles but Yayaati’s understanding of the world and its ways (which were out-of syllabus) helps him prove his prowess at running the eco-lodge successfully.

Rekindle Emotional Bonds: Family is a bond that one cannot live without. But in contemporary society, families are evolving and their closeness is fading. Yayaati too distances himself from his parents, especially his father. But as life progresses and one learns , unlearns and picks up the pieces of life , there comes a time when he / she tries to get back to the warmth of having a family with close bonds. Yayaati tries to do the same. In fact, his visit to his hometown years later, invokes all his childhood memories and curiosity about the places and its people.

Embark on a Lifelong Quest to find Yourself: Life is a journey of finding oneself and this is the biggest truth Yayaati finds out. Achievements in life are just milestones of inching closer to discovering oneself, but it is never the full attainment of one’s goal. It is this journey which must be lived, respected and constantly adapted to that would polish the morale and character of a person. This journey is also about understanding that change is the inevitable constant and one needs to know when to let go and embrace the change.

Yayaati’s journey from being a mediocre student to one of the top rated equity analysts and then on to being an entrepreneur is truly inspiring; and makes up for a lesson in understanding change and adaptations in life. It is definitely worth a read.

No. of Pages: 352

Publisher: Notion Press

Available on: Flipkart / Amazon

*Disclaimer: I would like to Thank Author Mahesh Vaze, Publisher, Notion Press and Blogger, Siddhi Palande for giving me the opportunity to review this book.

The Phoenix: Bilal Siddiqi

The Phoenix by Bilal Siddiqi is a fast-paced modern thriller narrating the story of an Indian intelligence officer stuck in adverse situations. The story which starts with an encounter in Southall London in the year 2013 has a triggering effect, progressing through time, continents, and cities while only aggravating the seriousness of the scenario. Aryaman Khanna, an erstwhile intelligence officer is sent to the Lakshadweep high security prisons for breaching protocols during the encounter in 2013. An encounter which not only made him lose his friends and mentor,  but also saw him stripped of duty.

Fast forward to seven years Aryaman is still efficiently armed with his knowledge of service, but is unaware of the doom which lurks towards his family. He also reflects on his only child with whom he shares a restrained relationship. On release he has a feeling of self-doubt reminiscing if there ‘was any part of his old self still there . . . . .to recognize?’ but is determined to go back to his wife and son and reconcile for the lost years.

But trouble starts when a seemingly hit-and-run case claims his wife, Jyoti’s life – except that she is a successful journalist who was working on a top –secret story, powerful enough to get goons after her and to shake the secure foundations of a Nation serving millions of people. Here begins Aryaman’s journey back into the world of intelligence and espionage with the help of his ex-colleague and friend Randheer. Now it is up to him to not only avenge his wife’s death and protect his family but also to serve the Nation that had once refused to believe in him.

From the bazaars of Turkey to the luxury of Thailand, from the aridness of Pakistan to the serenity of London – a vortex of revenge so spun against the people of India, it is hard to imagine that it can ever be done. Siddiqi needs to be commended for merging the pieces of the puzzle so smoothly that they weave into a compact story. The Phoenix has several central themes,  starting from the working of the Indian intelligentsia to the psyche of the families of those working as intelligence officers.  Relationships – friendship, love, parent- children, forms an essential part of the storyline and almost gives it the right push to take it forward.

What The Phoenix accentuates through the narration is a weapon of mass destruction lurking over millions of people in India. This makes it very relatable to the contemporary condition of the country and the world which is almost in a state of Biological warfare with the Corona Virus; the only difference is that Siddiqi’s antagonist tries to make use of the same for personal revenge.

The Phoenix resonates how Dumbledore introduced one to Harry and-is personified by Aryaman. Having had a very fruitful career he is sent into the flames of high prison but resurrects seven years later to heal himself and the world due to the emotional blow that he receives. Aryaman may appear tough but is equally understanding, caring, and loyal. His loyalty towards his friend Randheer, or his continuous effort to try and mend his relation with his son, depicts that he is one of the fewer remaining officers who have true emotions left in him, but do not allow these emotions to take the better of him. He is still as prompt in planning, quick in understanding the enemy’s motives, and daring yet careful in his stances. His repeated mention of his mentor reveals how grateful he is of his late mentor.

It is interesting to note the way Siddiqi has used the role of the digital sphere. With the pandemic, the world is going through a digital revolution, at the same time he has exposed the darker side of this platform. How everything is digital and yet hidden, messages are bare yet coded, top secret missions are planned in broad daylight sitting in different parts of the world , yet difficult to crack by the cyber surveillance.

A gripping tale with ensemble characters and one truth- No One can be trusted, The Phoenix is successful in capturing the attention of the people. Definitely recommended, should you have a taste for contemporary thrillers.

No. of Pages: 228

Publisher:  Penguin India

Available at: Flipkart/ snapdeal/ Amazon

Rating: 3.5/5